No Greater Love

May 09, 2021 homily on Psalm 98, John 15:9-17, 1 John 5:1-6 by Pastor Galen Zook

Celebrating the Love of Mothers

In 1 John 5, John the Evangelist tells us that “everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” And Jesus says in John 15:9 “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

Today is Mother’s Day, a day when we celebrate motherly love, and we are grateful for all of the mothers in our midst, who so often demonstrate for us what it looks like to love others, as God has loved us. 

Now, we recognize that there are some here today who may have a complicated relationship with motherhood. Perhaps there are some who wanted to be mothers, but did not have the opportunity. There are others who perhaps are mothers, but who are mourning the loss of a child or children. Others here today perhaps never knew their mother, or their mother was unable to give them the type of love that they desired.

And yet, I pray that each of us has had the opportunity to know the love of someone in our lives who has been a mother to us – whether the mother who gave us birth, or someone who has been like a mother to us. 

And so today we are thankful for all the mothers, as well as the women of faith who have been mothers to us along our journey.

The Motherly love of God

It’s interesting to note how frequently in the Bible God is described with motherly language. Most obvious of course is the imagery of birth and new birth that we find throughout the Scriptures.

In Deuteronomy 32:18, for example, God says to the Israelites “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” Sounds like something some of our mothers might say!

The psalmist uses the metaphor of a child nursing at his mother’s breast to describe his relationship with God in Psalm 131:2 saying, “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.”

In Isaiah 49 God asks the question, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Is. 49:15-16).

In Hosea chapter 11 verse 3 and 4 we see God take on the teaching, cuddling, and nourishing roles that are often associated with mothers. God says, 

It was I who taught Ephraim to walk taking them by the arms;

but they did not realize it was I who healed them.

I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.

To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek,  and I bent down to feed them.

And in Isaiah 66:13 God promises the Israelites, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.”

And finally, Jesus continues this metaphor in Matthew 23:37 when He pronounces over Jerusalem,how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”

Friendship with God

Here in our text in John 15, Jesus uses the language of “friendship” to describe our relationship with God, saying, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-14).

Although the image that Jesus uses here is that of “friendship” rather than “motherhood,” this love that he describes is a sacrificial love, the type of love that involves laying down one’s life for someone else. This is the type of love that often goes well beyond that of friendship, and indeed it is often indicative of the type of love that mothers have for their children. How often have mothers had to sacrifice their own needs and desires and wants for the sake of their children? How often do mothers put their children’s needs ahead of their own? Even the act of giving birth is one of self-sacrificial love.

Indeed, most often the first deep relational connection that of us have in our lives is with our mother. And so we could equate this type of sacrificial love that Jesus talks about with motherly love. 

Even though not everyone has had the opportunity to know firsthand the love of their biological mothers, we can all know and experience firsthand the love of God, who is both like a mother and a friend to us. Each and every one of us can experience the deep affection, nurture, and concern of a God who cares for us with tender affection, a love that was ultimately expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who loved us so much that he willingly gave his life for us.

Love God, Love Others

Knowing and experiencing this type of love firsthand can and should compel us to love others with this same type of love. 

That’s why John tells us in 1 John 5:1-2 that “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”

And what are Jesus’s commandments? That we love God, and love others. 

As a parent, there’s nothing that gives me greater joy than seeing my daughters playing and having fun and getting along together. And in the same way, God’s desire is that we get along with and love God’s other children! In fact, it’s impossible to love God, if at the same time we hate and hold animosity towards others. 

And so Jesus says,  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-14).

History of Mother’s Day

Interestingly enough, this idea of loving God and loving one another relates to the history of Mother’s Day, and how Mother’s day came to be recognized as a national holiday here in the United States. I actually didn’t know until this week that Mother’s Day has its roots in the Methodist Church, as it was founded by two Methodist women – Ann Reeves Jarvis, and her daughter, Anna Jarvis.

The mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, was born in Culpeper, Virginia, on September 30, 1832, the daughter of a Methodist minister. At the age of 18 she married the son of a Baptist minister, and they moved to Webster, in what’s now West Virginia, where her husband established a mercantile business.

Like many families during the mid-1800s, Ann and her husband experienced frequent tragedy and loss. Jarvis bore somewhere between eleven and thirteen children, but only four survived to adulthood. The others died of diseases such as measles, typhoid fever, and diphtheria, epidemics of which were common in Appalachian communities in that day. These losses inspired Jarvis to take action to help her community combat childhood diseases and unsanitary conditions.

Jarvis was a dynamic woman who saw needs in her community and found ways to meet them. In 1858, while pregnant with her sixth child, Jarvis began Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in the nearby towns to improve health and sanitary conditions. She and other area women joined a growing public health movement in the United States. 

Jarvis’ Mothers’ Day Work clubs sought to provide assistance and education to families in order to reduce disease and infant mortality. The clubs raised money to buy medicine and to hire women to work in families where the mother suffered from tuberculosis or other health problems. They developed programs to inspect milk long before there were state requirements. Club members visited households to educate mothers and their families about improving sanitation and overall health. The clubs benefited from the advice of Jarvis’ brother, James Reeves, who was a physician known for his work in the typhoid fever epidemics in northwestern Virginia.

During the Civil War, Jarvis’ Mothers’ Day Work Clubs altered their mission to meet the changing demands brought about by war. Ann Jarvis urged the clubs to provide aid to both Confederate and Union soldiers. Under her guidance, the clubs fed and clothed soldiers from both sides who were stationed in the area. When typhoid fever and measles broke out in the military camps, Jarvis and her club members nursed the suffering soldiers from both sides.

Jarvis’ efforts to keep the community together continued after the Civil War ended. After the fighting concluded, public officials seeking ways to eliminate post-war strife called on Jarvis to help. She and her club members planned a “Mothers Friendship Day” for soldiers from both sides and their families at the Taylor County Courthouse in Pruntytown West Virginia to help the healing process. Despite threats of violence, Jarvis successfully staged an event in 1868 where she shared a message of unity and reconciliation with the veterans. This effective and emotional event reduced many to tears. It showed the community that old animosities were destructive and must end.

After the Civil War Jarvis continued her social activist work and served in her local church. Throughout her whole life, Jarvis taught Sunday School and was very involved with the Methodist church. She served as superintendent of the Primary Sunday School Department at  her for twenty-five years. Jarvis was also a popular speaker and often lectured on subjects ranging from religion, public health, and literature for audiences at local churches and organizations. Her lectures included, “Literature as a Source of Culture and Refinement,” “Great Mothers of the Bible,” “Great Value of Hygiene for Women and Children,” and “The Importance of Supervised Recreational Centers for Boys and Girls.” 

Throughout her whole life, Jarvis strove to honor and help mothers. Her daughter Anna recalled her praying for someone to start a day to memorialize and honor mothers during a Sunday school lesson in 1876. A few years after Jarvis’ death, her daugher Anna organized the first official observance of Mother’s Day, near the anniversary of her mother’s death. The first public service was held at Andrews Methodist Church on the morning of May 10, 1908. And that afternoon, 15,000 people attended another service that Anna organized in Philadelphia, held at the Wanamaker Store Auditorium.

Following the success of her first Mother’s Day, Jarvis—who remained unmarried and childless her whole life—resolved to see her holiday added to the national calendar. Arguing that American holidays were biased toward male achievements, she started a massive letter writing campaign to newspapers and prominent politicians urging the adoption of a special day honoring motherhood.

By 1912 many states, towns and churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday, and Jarvis had established the Mother’s Day International Association to help promote her cause. Her persistence paid off in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

The Love of God

Ann Reeves Jarvis and her daughter Anna Jarvis had experienced firsthand the sacrificial, motherly love of God, and because of that, they had a special care and concern to honor mothers, and to see all of God’s children live in peace.

And so today we honor the mothers in our midst and we remember and praise God for those mothers who have gone on before us. We celebrate the sacrificial love of God, who loves us with a tender love and affection, and we relish in the love of Jesus, who gave himself for us. May all of us live into the dream and vision of those who saintly Methodist women who founded Mothers Day, and may we too learn what it looks like to love all of God’s children. 

Let us pray:

God of all creation, in your goodness you have given us life. Like a mother who labors, you bear the pain of our sin to welcome your children into new life in your mercy. Bless mothers of all generations for their countless sacrifices and self-emptying love. May they savor the fulfillment that comes from giving life and love to their children, and to all who seek their care, for it is a participation in your abundant love. Sustain them in compassion, and entrust them with the power of your love that bears the fullness of life. 

God, may we who have received your deep love and compassion in turn share that love with those around us. On this Mother’s Day, as we honor our mothers and those who have been like a mother to us, may we live into the vision of those saintly women who founded mother’s day, who desired to see all of God’s children get along in peace and unity. May we be bearers of your peace, agents of reconciliation and love in a world that is torn apart with violence, greed, and animosity. May you use us to bring peace where there is violence, where there is sorrow, may we bring your joy, and where there is hatred may we bring your love. 

In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen

Abide in Me

May 02, 2021 homily on Psalm 22:25-31 John 15:1-8 by Pastor Galen Zook

Well today is the first Sunday of May, and here in the Northeast we have a saying: “April showers bring May flowers.” And what do May flowers bring?

Well, for many of us, may flowers bring seasonal allergies! This time of the year is particularly bad for my allergies. I think it’s the tree pollen.

Now I’ve found a type of medicine that works pretty well, and keeps my allergies under control. This medicine actually works so well for me that after a few days of taking it, I don’t feel any more sinus pressure, or experience sneezing, or itchy watery eyes. (Don’t worry, this sermon isn’t going to be an infomercial, there’s a point I’m going to make here!)

The problem is that the medicine works so well, that after a few days I start feeling great, and I start thinking to myself, “I guess my allergies are gone! I guess I don’t need to take this medicine anymore!” And so I stop taking it. And guess what happens? The sinus pressure, and sneezing, and itchy watery eyes returns with a vengeance! 

The reason I was feeling great was because of the medicine, not despite it. And so if I want to keep feeling great, I need to keep taking the medicine.

I think this is a common experience for many people who take medication, or exercise regularly or try to eat healthy foods. We start feeling great, and so we think we don’t need to take the medicine, or to keep exercising, or watching what we eat. And so we grow lax. But when we do, we start feeling awful again.

The Vine and the Branches

In John chapter 15, Jesus was preparing his disciples for what was about to come. Jesus and the disciples were about to experience an incredibly difficult time. Jesus was going to be arrested, tried, and crucified and would remain in the grave for 3 days before being resurrected. Most of the disciples would scatter for fear that the same people who arrested and crucified Jesus would come for them as well, and the disciples would be hiding in fear that the same people who crucified Jesus would come for them as well.

But then Jesus would appear to them in his resurrected body, and Pentecost would come, and Jesus would send them the promised Holy Spirit who would be with them, and who would empower them to go into all the world to proclaim the Good News of Jesus’s death and resurrection to people of every language. They would baptize new believers in the name of Jesus, and they would make disciples of people from every nation.

But the problem was that after all of this, Jesus knew they would be tempted to think that they didn’t need him anymore! Jesus knows our human tendency towards self-sufficiency, our inclination to overestimate our own strength and power. He knew how much we like to think that we don’t need God or anyone or anything else in our lives. He knew his followers would think that we could operate on our own strengths and giftedness.

And so Jesus gave his disciples and us this image of a vine and branches. The image of a vineyard had been used throughout the Hebrew prophetic literature to describe the nation of Israel (see for example Psalm 80:8-19), with the idea that God was the one who planted and tended the vineyard. The Hebrew prophets believed that God was working through the nation of Israel to produce something beautiful – a beautiful harvest — that would be a blessing to the whole world.

Here in John 15 Jesus adds to this image, again saying that God the Father is the vine grower, but here Jesus depicts himself as the vine, or what we might think of as the trunk (if it were a tree), and he says that we — his disciples – are the branches. And, just as a branch can only bear fruit if it stays connected to the vine, in the same way, we as Christ’s followers need to stay connected to Jesus. 

“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

We cannot operate out of our own strength. We need the power of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, coursing through us if we are to bear good fruit.

“I’m Good”

It’s a lot easier for me to remember to take my allergy medicine when I’m sneezing. And in the same way, it’s so much easier for us to remember our need to stay connected to the vine when we’re going through trials and tribulations. It’s easy to call out to God when we’re in trouble.

But the minute things start going well, we’re so often tempted to think, “I’ve got this. I’m good. God, I’ll call you if I need you!”

The story is told of a man who was running late for a very important meeting and was frantically looking for a parking spot downtown. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation like that before, but it’s situations like that that have often prompted me to pray. In this case, the gentleman cried out to God. He said, “God! If you help me find a parking spot, I promise that I will go to church faithfully every Sunday for the rest of my life! I will serve you. I will devote my life to you!”

Just then a parking spot opened up, and the gentleman looked up at the sky and said, “never mind God, I just found a parking spot all by myself.”

How often do we do the same thing? We cry out to God when we’re in despair. We say “Lord heal me, deliver me” or “Lord help me get through this trial.” But then we get through it, and we’re on the other side, and we think to ourselves “Wow, I’m good! I was able to get through that really difficult time all on my own. I’m pretty amazing!”

But the reality is that no matter what we’re going through, whether we’re going through good times or bad times, we are completely and utterly dependent on the goodness and mercy of God in our lives. And so we need to stay connected into the vine. We need to stay tapped in to that source of power, and strength and nourishment. If and when we try to go off on our own, we might be able to make it for a little while, we might be able to run for a little bit on our own steam, but eventually we’ll lose the spiritual energy, strength, and vitality. On our own, we’ll start to make poor decisions, we’ll flounder and we’ll fall. As branches we need to stay connected to the vine, or we’ll never be able to bear fruit that lasts.

Abiding in God’s Love

The good news is that even if and when we fail, and even if we fall, even if we become disconnected from the vine, Jesus is always ready and waiting to welcome us back home again. Jesus’s grace and mercy are abundant and free. And so we don’t need to live in fear that our failures will disqualify us from experiencing the fullness of life that God has for us. This is why Jesus said to his disciples, “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). And so we don’t need to operate in fear, but instead we can rest in the promises of God’s love for us. We can remain, abide, in God’s love. 

The word that Jesus uses here to describe what it looks like to stay connected to the vine – this word “abide” or “remain” is the same word that John uses when he describes the Holy Spirit coming down out of heaven and resting, or remaining, on Jesus when he came up out of the waters of his baptism. John the Evangelist uses this same word in 1 John chapter 4 when he says, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Jesus is inviting us here to rest in him, to make our home with him. To draw our strength and energy and sustenance from him. Jesus says that if we abide in him we can bear much fruit (John 15:5), and that we can ask for whatever we wish, and it will be done for us (John 15:7). What an amazing promise!

The Other Branches

Now there’s one more reality about being a branch that I want to highlight. And that is that if we’re connected to the vine, then we are inextricably linked to the other branches. As much as I might like to think that it’s just about me and Jesus, the truth is that we are linked to each other – the other branches through the vine, and so therefore what affects the other branches affects each one of us, and what affects us affects the other branches.

In 1 John chapter 4, John the Evangelist goes on to say “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). And later in the chapter, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). 

Abiding in Christ, staying connected to the vine, inherently involves loving our brothers and sisters in Christ and fellowshipping together with other believers. Encouraging one another, praying for and supporting one another, assisting even with the physical needs of brothers and sisters in Christ, as the opportunity arises. 

And this doesn’t just mean that we’re connected to the other believers here in our own congregation. No! Being connected to Jesus means we’re also connected with those believers who worship differently than us, who think or act differently than us, and who believe differently than us. As much as we might often try to distance ourselves from those “other Christians,” the reality is that if we’re connected to the vine, and if we’re abiding in Christ, then we are also connected to those other believers, including those with whom we might vehemently disagree.

This is why when we take communion, we do so together as a church community, but also remembering that we are part of the global Church. Yes, communion can be a reminder to us of our individual need and dependence on Christ. When we partake in communion, we remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for each and every one of us by giving his life for us on the cross. This can be a meaningful and intimate experience with God.

But communion is not just about communing with God,  it’s also about communing with one another. And so in our communion prayer we ask that by the power of the Holy Spirit God would make us “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” 

Typically in pre-COVID times, we would invite everyone to come forward to the front of the sanctuary and to kneel along the alter, and we would all take a piece of bread from one common loaf of bread, and we would dip it into the grape juice as an experience and a reminder that communion in a communal celebration. We’ve had to make some adjustments to the way we do things during this season due to COVID, and now we use prepackaged, individual cups and wafer. But the spirit of the communion service is the same. When we receive the communion elements, we are participating together in this holy mystery. And not only with one another here in this sanctuary, but with fellow believers all around our city, all around our nation, and all around the world, and throughout time and history.

And so this morning, let us remain in the vine. Let us not try to do it on our own strength.  Let us remember our need and dependence on the love and grace of God, and the communion that we have with one another. May we not just call out to God in the bad times, but in the good times as well. Let us never forget the love that Jesus has for us, and let’s extend that same love and grace and forgiveness to others as well. 

Listen To My Voice

Apr 25, 2021 homily on Psam 23 and John 10:11-18 by Pastor Galen

A Mother’s Voice

Scientific studies have shown that even before birth, babies can recognize the sound of their mother’s voice and distinguish it from other voices.

In 2003, a study conducted by Canadian and Chinese researchers found that baby’s brains are learning speech patterns and laying the groundwork for language acquisition while they are still in their mother’s womb.

To conduct the study, scientists tested 60 women in the final stages of pregnancy. All the mothers were recorded as they read a poem out loud. Then the mothers were divided into two groups. Half of the fetuses heard the recording of their own mother. The other half heard another mother, not their own.

In both cases, hearing the poem read out loud caused a change in the baby’s heart rate. The heart rate of the unborn babies who heard their own mother’s voice got faster, whereas the heart rate of those who heard a voice other than their mother’s actually slowed down!

Several years later, a study funded by the National Institute of Health found that babies in the womb actively listen to their mother’s voice during the last ten weeks of pregnancy, and that at birth they can distinguish between the sound of their mother’s native language and a foreign language!

It’s possible that unborn babies may also be able to recognize the sound of their father’s voice or other family members as well, but more research is needed on the subject. But the point is that even before they are born, babies are learning to recognize familiar voices, and can distinguish their mother’s voice from that of strangers. 

The Good Shepherd

In John 10, Jesus used an image that had been used to describe God throughout the Hebrew scriptures — that of a shepherd who cares for his sheep. 

Speaking about himself in contrast to the religious and political leaders of his day who had been tasked with caring for the people, but who instead used them to their own advantage, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:11, 14-15).

Earlier in John chapter 10, Jesus described a shepherd who knew his sheep so well that he called each of them by name. Jesus said, “the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

In Jesus’s day, all of the sheep in a particular village would be corralled together in a village sheepfold. When a shepherd needed to separate out his sheep to take them home, or to take them out to pasture, he would call out to them to follow him. Shepherds often had little pet names for their sheep, and so they would call them by name. And amazingly, the sheep would recognize the sound of their shepherd’s voice, and would follow. 

The bond between the shepherd and the sheep was undoubtedly strengthened by the fact that the sheep was completely dependent upon the shepherd for care and protection. 

In using this imagery of a good shepherd who cares for his sheep, Jesus was saying that just as a shepherd knows his sheep, and just as his sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd, so too Jesus knows and loves each and every one of God’s children, and wants us to learn to hear and discern his voice, and follow his leading.

They Will Listen to My Voice

A few verses later, Jesus went on to say, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16).

Speaking here to a predominantly Jewish audience, the “other sheep” that Jesus mentions here are most likely the “Gentiles” — another word for “the nations.” Jesus was reminding the religious leaders of his day, and us today as well, that Jesus’s love knows no limits. All are invited to become members of Christ’s flock. All are welcome to listen to his voice and respond to his calling. 

Learning to Listen

How, then, do we learn to listen to and discern the voice of our Good Shepherd, Jesus? 

Listening involves more than simply hearing. In the Hebrew Scriptures, “listening to God’s voice” referred to obeying God’s commands. Listening involves actively paying attention and responding. When someone asks us to do something, it’s not enough to simply hear with our ears. Listening – truly listening – involves taking action based upon what we’ve heard.

Listening to and obeying the voice of God involves learning to trust and depend on God, like sheep depend upon their shepherd, and babies depend on their parents, and this is often easiest to learn at a very young age. Later on this morning we’re going to have a baptism. Baptisms are a wonderful time of celebration in the life of the church as we together as a congregation welcome new people into the community of faith. 

In this particular case, we’re going to be baptizing young Catalina, but in reality the baptism is not just about her – it’s also about her parents, and her family, choosing together to follow God, and to raise Catalina in the Church, so that she can learn to hear and discern the voice of God, and so that someday she can make the decision for herself to follow Christ. 

Today we’ll be addressing questions to her parents, inviting them to make a commitment to raise Catalina in the Christian faith.  When Catalina is older, and when she’s ready to take that step for herself, we’ll invite her to come forward and “confirm” her faith, to become a “professing member” of the church, as an indication of her own personal response to God’s calling on her life. 

Just as children learn from a very young age (even before birth!) to recognize and differentiate the voice of their parents, so too children can learn to listen to and hear and obey the voice of God even from a very young age. 

One way that we help children and all who are young in the faith learn to recognize God’s voice is by reading God’s Word – the Bible – to them. This is why each Sunday here at church we read Scripture before the sermon – we generally read a passage from the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”) and one from the Gospels or another passage from the New Testament, so that over the course of our lifetimes we’re being soaked in God’s words.

In Children’s Church/Sunday School and Vacation Bible school we invite children to memorize Scripture – a good practice for anyone of any age to do! And we encourage families and individuals to read and study Scripture on their own or together as a family throughout the week. The more we listen to, the more we hear God’s voice expressed through Scripture, the more we learn to differentiate and distinguish God’s voice from all of the other noise and chaos in our world. 

But again, it’s not enough just to hear – we must also obey. As parents or grandparents, godparents, or other family members, we have a responsibility to model for the next generation what it means to listen to and obey God’s voice. Our children and grandchildren and those who are younger in the faith are watching what we do, and so often our actions speak much louder than our words! When we trust and obey what God tells us to do, it encourages others to do the same.

And by the way, for the children who are here or listening this morning, you’re not off the hook! Your younger siblings, cousins and relatives, or friends and neighbors are watching how you act as well! Each one of us, no matter our age or stage of life, can be a role model and example to those around us. Each one of us can point others towards the Good Shepherd, who loves and cares for us and invites us to follow. 

Psalm 23

The psalmist David knew what it meant to look out for and care for sheep. As the youngest member in his family, he was often tasked with looking out for his family’s flocks, and he spent countless hours in the fields, watching his father’s sheep, and composing lyrical poetry. David was quite aware of the dangers that sheep faced, who were often attacked by bears, or wolves, or lions, and he knew how much they depended on him, as their shepherd, to take care of them.

At the same time, David realized that he was sort of like one of his sheep, because he was completely and utterly dependent on God for his own care and protection. And so David composed this famous poem which we read earlier in Psalm 23, which beautifully expresses the deep affection that God has for each one of us, and the deep trust and dependence that we in turn can have for God. And so this morning I’d like to read this Psalm for us one more time, in hopes that we too might learn to listen and respond to the voice of our Good Shepherd, and that we might help others to do the same:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

he leads me beside still waters;

he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

    I fear no evil;

for you are with me;

    your rod and your staff—

    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

    in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil;

    my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

    all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

    my whole life long (Psalm 23)

Unless I See

April 11th 2021 homily on John 20:19-31 by pastor Galen

A Raging Pandemic

The year was 165 A.D., and a devastating plague was sweeping across the Roman Empire. Some historians think that perhaps it was the first appearance of smallpox in the West, but whatever it was, it was deadly—as many contagious diseases are when they strike a previously unexposed population. During the15-year duration of the epidemic, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the population died from the disease. At the height of the epidemic, mortality was so great in many cities that the emperor Marcus Aurelius (who subsequently died from the disease) described caravans of carts and wagons hauling out the dead. 

The famous Greek doctor, surgeon, and philosopher Galen (who I’m named after), whose views dominated and influenced Western medical science for more than 1,300 years, fled the city of Rome during the pandemic and went to his countryside estate where he stayed until the danger subsided. For those who could not flee, the typical response was to try to avoid any contact with the afflicted, since it was understood that the disease was contagious. When even the first sign of symptoms appeared, victims were often thrown out into the streets and left to die, so that their friends and loved ones would not contract the deadly disease.

The Christians living in the Roman Empire, on the other hand, did not do this, choosing insteading to care for their loved ones and even for those who were not part of their Church community by providing them with food and water. In so doing, they were able to nurse many people back to health. Of course there were many Christians who did not survive the epidemic, but these died as faithful followers of Christ, loving and caring for their family, friends, and neighbors, treating others as they would have wanted to be treated, as Jesus taught us to do.

I’m grateful that in the current pandemic that we’re living through we have much more sophisticated means of treating COVID patients and tracking the spread of the coronavirus. But there have been many frontline workers and medical professionals who have risked their own safety in order to care for others. And many of you have cared for friends and loved ones who contracted the virus — following CDC guidelines to minimize the risk to yourself and others — thereby exemplifying Christlike love and compassion.

Faith Matters

But what was it that caused the famous Greek physician Galen to flee to his countryside estate rather than stay and assist the afflicted? And what was it that caused the Christians of his day to risk their own safety in order to serve the sick?

In his book The Triumph of Christianity, sociologist and historian Rodney Stark answers that question in this way: “Christians believed in life everlasting, [Whereas those who practiced the Roman religions] believed in an unattractive existence in the underworld. Thus, for Galen to have remained in Rome to treat the afflicted during the first great plague would have required far greater bravery than was needed by Christian deacons and presbyters to do so.” And he concludes by saying, “Faith mattered.”

The 2nd century Christians believed in life everlasting, just as we do today. They had faith and confidence that death was not the end, and that because Jesus rose from the grave on Easter morning, we too will one day be resurrected. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection we have hope and confidence that no matter what happens to us in this life, if we put our faith and trust in the Lord we will be with Christ for all eternity.

Faith mattered to those 2nd century Christians. Not in a way that denied the danger they were experiencing, but in a way that motivated them to serve others with care and compassion.

“Unless I See”

In the Gospel of John chapter 20, we find that the evening after Jesus rose from the grave his disciples were huddled together behind locked doors, for fear that the same people who put Jesus to death would come and arrest them for being followers of Jesus. The word “disciples” here probably refers not just to Jesus’s inner circle of disciples, but to the larger number of men and women who had followed Jesus and been sent out by him to heal and minister to the sick in Luke chapter 10.

Mary Magdalene had seen the risen Lord and had shared the good news of Christ’s resurrection with the other disciples. Peter and John had gone and seen the empty tomb for themselves, but they were all still scared and confused, wondering what had happened to his body? Had someone stolen it? And if Jesus had indeed risen as Mary said, where was he now?

All of a sudden, standing there in their midst, was Jesus! “He showed them his hands and his side,” John tells us, and “the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” Jesus spoke with them, and breathed on them the breath of the Holy Spirit.

But a week later, the disciples were again in the house with the doors closed. This time Thomas was with them. The other disciples had told Thomas that they had seen the risen Christ, but he was even more skeptical than they had been, saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).

But then, standing there once again in their midst, was Jesus, saying “Peace be with you.” Jesus invited Thomas to come and see for himself, saying, “’Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’” Thomas answered him, “’My Lord and my God!’” (John 20:27-28). Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” (John 20:29a) And then Jesus uttered those words that refer to each and every one of us who have never seen the risen Lord in bodily form, and yet put put our faith and trust in Christ: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29b).

The Body of Christ in Action

Of course, it’s easier to believe that Christ is alive when we see the Church, referred to as the Body of Christ, living into the hope of the resurrection, proclaiming the Gospel through word and deed, as those 2nd century Christians did during the time of the plague in the Roman empire. 

And so it was because of the love and compassion of those 2nd century Christians that many people converted to Christianity. Even the Roman Emperor Julian, writing in the fourth century, took notice of the actions of Christ’s followers in his own day and age, although he himself did not convert. Emperor Julian actually lamented the progress of Christianity because it pulled people away from worshiping the Roman gods. Julian said that the Christian faith “has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead.” He went on to say it was a scandal that “there is not a single [Christian] who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans” (he called them that because they denied the existence of the Roman gods) “care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”

In other words, so many people were drawn to the Christian faith because of the love and compassion shown by the Christians that even the emperor of Rome took notice, and lamented the fact that Rome itself did not take such good care of those in need.

But what about…?

Of course there have been just as many times throughout the past two thousand years when Christians have failed to love and care for others. Many acts of violence and atrocities have been committed by those who claim the name of Christ. In my work with atheists and skeptics on college campuses, I’m frequently asked to account for the Crusades, or those Christians who owned slaves, or more recently the many Christians who stormed the capital on January 6th holding up signs declaring “Jesus saves.” Just a few weeks ago, a young man by the name of Robert Aaron Long – a church member, and the son of a youth pastor, shot and killed 8 people in Atlanta, 6 of whom were Asian women.

Is it any wonder that so many of our friends and family members have no interest in coming to church, or being associated in any way with those who claim the name of Christ but act in ways so antithetical to the Gospel message?

This is why we must denounce in the strongest of terms all acts of hatred, abuse, violence, and animosity directed towards others. We must proclaim that those who bear Christ’s name and yet commit such senseless acts of violence were not following in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who taught us to love and serve one another.

We recognize that the Church is an imperfect representation of Christ on this earth, and we acknowledge our own sinfulness and brokenness. And yet Christ has entrusted to us the message of the Gospel. We have been tasked with proclaiming the hope that we have because of Christ’s resurrection. We have been commissioned to point others toward the Christ who continually shows up in our midst, breaking even through doors that have been locked and shut. We’ve been instructed to help others see Christ’s hands and feet – the Body of Christ in action – scarred though we may be, so that they too can see and believe.

Signs of The Resurrection

The other day someone asked me why I still believe. Why do I have faith in Christ, even when there are so many reasons to doubt? Throughout this past year, even during this pandemic, and even in the midst of the increased chaos and polarization in our society, I have seen evidence that Jesus is alive and well and working in our midst.

  • I’ve seen members of our congregation caring for family members and neighbors, extending love even to strangers. I’ve seen us as a congregation search for and find new and creative ways to keep in touch with one another, even when we could not see each other in person. 
  • I saw our church provide free masks to people, even when stores had scarce supply.
  • I’ve seen us embrace the use of technology in our worship services, diversifying how we worship God together, and making it possible for us to join together with people around the city, the country, and even around the world. 
  • I’ve seen churches working together in new and renewed across denominations, coming together to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the community. Churches that didn’t have the capacity to livestream their services joined in with other congregations fpr worship. (Our own congregation has been blessed to have several members of the Woodberry Church of the Brethren joining us for worship during this past year!) And City Harbor Church, the congregation that typically meets for worship in our building at 9 am before our service, continued faithfully paying their rent month in and month out during this past year (despite the fact that they were not even using the building!) as a way to support our ongoing ministry efforts.
  • The interdenominational Christian fellowship of churches in our community continued our steadfast and faithful commitment to continue the community food pantry which we host here in our building, providing food and clothing to those in need, never closing our doors even once even in the midst of the height of the pandemic.
  • And I saw congregations in our community coming together to respond to the violence and racial injustice and disparity that has been revealed in our society over this past year. Back in June of 2020 myself and several other clergy in the community coordinated a neighborhood gathering for racial solidarity, in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Hundreds of neighbors, many of whom had not left their houses for weeks or even months due to the stay-at-home order, flooded the street and joined in a peaceful vigil on The Avenue, all properly masked and socially distanced, as the Gospel was proclaimed from the steps of the St. Luke’s Church On The Avenue. Community members listened with rapt attention as neighbors of various races and ethnicities shared their stories in support of one another.

Friends, I believe in the resurrection because I’ve seen the risen Christ. Not in the flesh, but I’ve seen his hands and feet, the Church, the Body of Christ at work in the world, coming out from behind locked doors to boldly witness to the faith and the hope that we have in Christ. We’re not perfect in any way, shape, or form. And yet Christ continues to reveal his life through us. May we continue to demonstrate through word and deed the crucified and risen Christ, to a world that is desperately longing to see and believe. 

The Great Comeback

April 4th 2021 Easter Sunday homily on John 20:1-18 by Pastor Galen

The Greatest Comeback Story Ever

Everyone loves a great comeback story. The baseball team that starts out in last place but ends up winning the championship. The football team whose quarterback gets injured but the second string quarterback leads the team to victory. We love it when the basketball team is down by two points but in the final few seconds of the game the rookie player sinks a 3-point shot right as the final buzzer rings. 

We love those superhero movies where the villain seems to have won, but then at the last minute the hero rises from the ashes and saves the world. We’re enthralled by those heart wrenching stories where the long lost soldier who had amnesia recovers his memory and in the end is reunited with his family.

But there’s no greater comeback story than Jesus Christ rising from the grave on Easter morning. To Jesus’s disciples, it had seemed that all hope was lost. They watched him get arrested, John and Peter saw him stand trial. Jesus had been beaten almost to the point of death and then forced to carry his cross to Golgotha, where he was hung bleeding and bruised for several hours, hands and feet pierced with nails. And after he had breathed his last breath, a spear was thrust into his side, just to make sure that he was dead.

And there was no doubt about it. He was definitely dead. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had taken him down from the cross and buried him in a tomb. The tomb was shut and sealed with a giant stone.

It seemed like the story was over.

But the grave could not keep him down. God raised Jesus from the grave on Easter morning, thereby conquering sin and death and hell and the grave. Jesus rose triumphant, never to die again. No other comeback story could ever compare with Jesus rising from the grave on Easter morning!

A Comeback for the Disciples

And because Jesus came back, Mary and Peter and John and the other disciples also experienced a comeback as well.

You see, when Jesus died on the cross, Mary Magdalene, whose life had been transformed by Jesus, probably thought the story was over for her as well. Jesus had given her a level of respect and dignity that probably no one else in her life had afforded her until that point. Everyone else looked at her and remembered her past, what she used to be. But Jesus looked at her and saw her inherent worth and dignity before God. He saw that she was a beloved child of God who had been born again – born anew. Following Jesus had given Mary new purpose and new meaning in life. But on that Good Friday when she saw Jesus hanging on the cross, and when he said “it is finished,” she thought that she was finished as well.

And then there was Peter. Peter, who had denied Jesus three times, said he didn’t even know Jesus. Peter probably thought his story was over as well. He had messed up too badly, and now Jesus was gone, and Peter thought he would never have the opportunity to tell Jesus he was sorry. 

But then Jesus came back! And Mary Magdalene got to be the first person to see Jesus in his resurrected body. Not only that, but in a society where the testimony of women was not even permissible in court, Mary became the first preacher of the Gospel, as she was sent to proclaim the good news of Christ’s resurrection to the rest of Jesus’s disciples! 

And Jesus’s comeback for Peter as well, because in Mark’s account of the resurrection, when Mary Magdalene and the other women came to the tomb on that Easter morning, the angel specifically told them to tell Peter and the other disciples that Jesus was alive. And so Jesus’s comeback was a comeback for Mary, and for Peter, and for all the disciples, and yes a comeback for us as well!

You see, because Jesus rose from the grave even when all hope seemed lost, we too can have hope. Because Jesus was victorious, we too can be victorious. Jesus conquered sin and death and the grave for each and every one of us, making it possible for us to be set free from the sin that has kept us in bondage. Like Mary, we too have been given new meaning, and new purpose in life. Like Peter, we too can be healed, and cleansed, and forgiven. 

And so no matter what tests and trials you may be facing, no matter what you might be going through, you can rest assured that because Jesus rose from that grave on Easter morning, we too can be victorious.

Jesus is Coming Back

Even when we’re down to our last breath, even when it seems that all hope is lost, we can still have hope, because Christ rose from the grave!  And the Scriptures tell us now he has ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God, preparing a place for us.And one day Jesus will come back to take us home to be with him. And so there is hope, even beyond the grave.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, the Apostle Paul says, “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (KJV).

The hymn writer Philip P. Bliss wrote, “When he comes, our glorious King, all his ransomed home to bring, then anew this song we’ll sing: Hallelujah! What a Savior!” 

Death could not keep him in the grave. He rose victorious that Easter morning. Because He lives, we too can live. And one day he will return to take us home to be forever with the Lord.

That’s the greatest comeback story ever told!